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In “The Hollow Men” there is a conflict between an intense longing for a state of edenic purity and the contradictory search for a more lasting form of order through denial and alienation. It can be observed that “The Hollow Men” expresses the depths of Eliot’s despair, but the poet in a sense chooses despair as the only acceptable alternative to the false existence of the unthinking inhabitants of the waste land.
The despair of “The Hollow Men” is controlled by intellectual principles, in the way the poem consciously evaluates experience in abstract terms, distinguishes between opposing states of being, and establishes, both in form and subject matter, the illusion of visionary experience.
The poem represents the progress of Eliot’s own “intellectual soul”, but this progress is frustrated by the poet’s attraction to a visionary imagery.
“The Hollow Men” replaces the rich and chaotic style of The Waste Land with an austerity of expression and a more contemplative mood.
The formal strategy of The Hollow Men, like its content, seems designed to show how effectively the inarticulate influences the conception and creation of a work of art. The formal aspects of the poem imitate the characteristics of the hollow men it portrays. For example, their desire to “avoid speech” (5) is comparable to the poem’s general paused rhythm, and the technique of constant repetition and negation: “The eyes are not here / There are no eyes here.” (5) Moreover, the “Paralyzed force, gesture without motion” (5) applies not only to the men themselves but to the poem as a whole, which exhibits little narrative progression in the conventional sense and lacks verbs of direct action.
As the hollow men walk together, say prayers to broken stones, and whisper meaninglessly, so the poem itself moves toward a conclusion only to end in hollow abstraction, broken prayer, and the meaningless repetition of a rhyme. The reduction of poetic expression to the minimum does away with metaphor and simile and produces a final section of the poem which almost completely lacks modifiers.
The poetic style marked by verbal austerity and negation forms a counterpart to the theme of rejection of the validity of human experience at every level. In this respect the poem expands on the theme of denial explored as part of the individual’s search for meaning in The Waste Land.
“The Hollow Men” explores this boundary situation in its images of finality or extremity and in a theme that comprises two different states of being. The poem’s speaker anticipates with dread “that final meeting” (5); the men walk together “In this last of meeting places” (5); the final section, in its generalized abstraction of all that has gone before, tells us that “This is the way the world ends.”
The Dantescan image of the lost souls “Gathered on this beach of the tumid river” (5) belongs to a boundary theme that recurs throughout Eliot’s poetry: Prufrock escapes from the world of skirts and teacups to the world of visionary imagination by means of a “walk upon the beach.” (6) The protagonist of The Waste Land sits down and cries “By the waters of Leman,”(7) then on the shore “with the arid plain behind me.” (7) The persona of The Hollow Men has arrived, intellectually and physically, at the limit of one world only to find that its ”deliberate disguises” (5) hide a limited lack of possibility: between capacity and existence “Falls the Shadow.”
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